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Flowering gray dogwood. Photo: Cranbrook Science.

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Gray dogwood is a shrub, reaching a maximum height of 16 feet.

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Flowers on gray dogwood form dome-shaped clusters. Photo: Dan Mullen.

By Alyssa Abaloz
This week’s native plant is the Gray Dogwood, or Cornus racemosa.
Throughout the course of our Native Plant of the Week series, we have covered many plants from the Dogwood family (Cornaceae). Gray dogwood is a highly adaptable species native to the Chicago region. A common deciduous shrub, the gray dogwood can be found throughout Michigan and zones 4 through 8.
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The leaves of gray dogwoods turn reddish-purple in the winter. Photo: Rick Webb.

Gray dogwood is a dominant player in its natural environment. A suckering plant, this shrub can quickly form dense, dogwood thickets if left undisturbed. Its upright growth pattern averages around 3-8 feet, with a maximum height of 16 feet! Spreading habits of this species are equally impressive. It is one of the first to spread in response to conditions such as wildfires or selective logging.
These growth patterns are not manageable enough for formal planting, but the gray dogwood can be useful in mass plantings and naturalization. It can do well in most types of soil, but prefers the moist to mesic conditions found in forests near rivers and streams, marshes and swamps, sandy oak and pine forests, fence-rows and borders of forests. Partial to full sun is best, but it can tolerate some shade.
White blossoms appear in late-spring, forming dome-shaped clusters unique to this species of dogwood. Mature branches are gray and slightly rough, due to an abundance of lenticels, or raised pores that assist gas exchange between the shrub and its environment. Younger stems and fruit stalks are smooth and red, reminiscent of its Red-Osier cousin.
 
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A warbling vireo makes a meal out of a gray dogwood berry. Photo: Larry Reis.

White berries emerge in the late summer, though their presence is short-lived. Birds and mammals make a feast of the gray dogwood’s berries, leaving its bright red stems barren by the time winter arrives. Beyond its nutritional value, it serves multiple purposes for the wildlife around it. The gray dogwood is an important source of nectar and pollen for insects, and its dense branching structure provides nesting sites and shelter for birds and small animals.
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